Bacon's essays: Of Youth and Age

At last, an essay that mostly makes sense right off the bat. Of Youth and Age is conventional wisdom, mostly, with that special Baconian twist.

I’ll pick quotes out of order for a change of pace, looking first at Youth, then at Age, and at some gentlemen who don’t quite fit either pattern.

The upside of youth


Cosimo de’ Medici, Duke of Florence

“A man that is young in years, may be old in hours, if he have lost no time. But that happeneth rarely.” He means that a young man who knows how to buckle down and make the most of his time could be considered old in experience. But then where’s the fun? The lessons learned from youthful indiscretions?


Cosimo is OK, but dig this crazy coat of arms the House of de’ Medici devised for themselves!

“But reposed natures may do well in youth. As it is seen in Augustus Caesar, Cosimus Duke of Florence, Gaston de Foix, and others.”


“Young men are fitter to invent, than to judge; fitter for execution, than for counsel; and fitter for new projects, than for settled business.”




The downside of youth

“Young men, in the conduct and manage of actions, embrace more than they can hold; stir more than they can quiet; fly to the end, without consideration of the means and degrees; pursue some few principles, which they have chanced upon absurdly; care not to innovate, which draws unknown inconveniences; use extreme remedies at first; and, that which doubleth all errors, will not bucking_horseacknowledge or retract them; like an unready horse, that will neither stop nor turn.”

Let me unpack this a little. “Stir more than they can quiet,” means set more things in motion than they can manage or bring to fruition. Similarly, “fly to the end, without consideration,” means getting ahead of yourself. Most things have a tedious middle section that has to be gotten through, in between the bright idea and the exciting finish.

Young people may not have the experience to avoid fruitless paths. “Care not to innovate,” I think means, “don’t mind innovating” even when that creates more inconveniences. I could be wrong on that one, but I don’t think it means, “don’t like to innovate,” because young people love to innovate. It saves having to learn stuff from the boring old past.

Not being willing to acknowledge your errors is one of the most annoying things for the people you work with. And Bacon is right: it totally makes things more difficult, either to go forward from the botch or to repair the thing. Own your mistakes, boys and girls. Say, “I screwed up. Let me fix it.”

The upside of age


Septimius Severus

“Natures that have much heat, and great and violent desires and perturbations, are not ripe for action, till they have passed the meridian of their years; as it was with Julius Caesar and Septimius Severus. Of the latter, of whom it is said, Juventutem egit erroribus, imo furoribus, plenam. [His youth was not only full of errors, but of frantic passions.] And yet he was the ablest emperor, almost, of all the list.”

Anyone recognize the name ‘Septimius Severus’? Severus Snape, perhaps? An able emperor, but a complex YA fantasy character.

Bacon is saying that passionate, wild-tempered, we might say hyper-active people, are going to be a hot mess in their youth, racketing from one thing to the next, getting into fights and bad affairs. Age slows them down enough for their reason to prevail. Then all that energy serves them well as they get older.

“…heat and vivacity in age, is an excellent composition for business.” 

“And certainly, the more a man drinketh of the world, the more it intoxicateth; and age doth profit rather in the powers of understanding, than in the virtues of the will and affections.”

Older people love the world more, in all its complicated weirdness. I’ve noticed that myself, now that I’m on the high side of sixty. Old people and middle-aged people look at things and laugh (not all couple-old-peoplethings, but ordinary life stuff), where young people are gaping in outrage and saying, “That should be stopped.” It’s perspective. You can’t make people stop being jerks or fools or whatever they are, so you might as well laugh.

I’m not sure about the “virtues of the will and affections.” Maybe he saying youth is more wilful, which might be true, somewhat. If he’s trotting out the old saw that youth loves more deeply than age, he’s wrong. Youth is just more single-minded about it.

Another thing he doesn’t note is the lessening of self-consciousness with age. There’s an old saying for that, apparently not as old as Bacon: In your twenties, you worry about what people think. In your forties, you don’t care what people think. In your sixties, you realize people haven’t been thinking about you at all.

The downside of age

“Men of age object too much, consult too long, adventure too little, repent too soon, and seldom drive business home to the full period, but content themselves with a mediocrity of success.”

Good enough to get along with; give it a lick and a promise.

old_women“…the errors of aged men, amount but to this, that more might have been done, or sooner.” This follows from consulting too long.

“A certain rabbin, upon the text, Your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, inferreth that young men, are admitted nearer to God than old, because vision, is a clearer revelation, than a dream.”

This old saying was old in Bacon’s day. Now I have to look it up. Oh! It’s from the Bible, Acts 2:17. Who’d’ve thunk it?

A couple of guys that just couldn’t make it happen

“There be some, have an over-early ripeness in their years, which fadeth betimes.” Like a child star who never gets an adult part.

“These are, first, such as have brittle wits, the edge whereof is soon turned; such as was Hermogenes the rhetorician, whose books are exceeding subtle; who afterwards waxed stupid.” 

I would never want to hear Francis Bacon say I had waxed stupid! This is Hermogenes of Tarsus, surnamed The Polisher. What did he polish, we wonder? Arses? He flourished in the reign of Marcus Aurelius (AD 161–180).

Waxing stupid isn’t the worst thing that’s been said about this poor shlub. Here’s Wikipedia: “His precocious ability secured him a public appointment as teacher of his art while he was only a boy, attracting the note of the emperor himself; but at the age of twenty-five his faculties gave way, and he spent the remainder of his long life in a state of intellectual impotence.” Ouch!

I like the method of having one’s faculties grow stronger with age, except of course the knees and the eyes.

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